Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

Jeju Haenyeo Fisheries System


Detailed Information



Detailed Information

Global Importance

Haenyeo (literally “sea women”) are professional women divers who dive to the bottom of the sea to catch seafood (e.g., abalone, turban shells, sea mustard and agar) without underwater breathing apparatus. The Jeju Haenyeo Fisheries, or the sea-diving industry on Jeju, emerged as the islanders turned to the abundant marine resources found on the rocky sea floor in an attempt to compensate for a constant shortage of agricultural products due to the poor soil of the volcanic island.

Food and livelihood security

The Jeju Haenyeo Fisheries System significantly contributed to securing food and livelihood for the islanders by enabling haenyeo to catch seafood in the village fishing grounds in addition to farming the fields, and by allowing them to jointly sell their catch, share profits and feed themselves and their families with the seafood left over from the sales.

Jeju’s sea-diving industry is based on individual fishing grounds managed and operated by the 102 fishing village cooperatives. Seafood from these fishing grounds is common property and is harvested, owned and maintained by a community of working women—i.e., haenyeo. This fisheries system of joint ownership and management— which is alive and well to this day—is underpinned by consultations and agreements between members of the haenyeo community in each fishing village.


The haenyeo’s expertise in environmentally friendly harvesting sea products has survived generation after generation, and their ecological resource management has helped facilitate biodiversity by controlling harvest seasons, the duration of harvesting operations, the size of catch to be harvested and the techniques and tools used for muljil (haenyeo’s underwater harvest work).

The haenyeo communities work together to protect the coastal environment and conserve biodiversity. The haenyeo communities in the form of fishing village cooperatives collectively control the technology and tools required for the collection work and regulate the hours of diving work per day as well as the size of collectible marine products.

Local and Traditional knowledge systems

Through generations, haenyeo have passed down traditional knowledge and technologies, ranging from ecological expertise about underwater topography, winds and currents and tide schedules, to a unique skillset for harvesting seafood deep underwater. Also, when haenyeo advanced to other parts of the world for bakkanmuljil (harvesting abroad), they disseminated their knowledge and technologies along the way, making Jeju a base for the Northeast Asian sea-diving industry.

Jeju haenyeo have a symbiotic relationship with nature, including marine ecosystems. Haenyeo can only collect if they carefully read their natural environment. They must understand the wind and tidal currents, as well as the ocean and topographical features. If nature permits, collection is possible, and if not, collection must stop.

Cultures, value systems and social organization

Haenyeo are classified into three levels—sanggun (top), junggun (middle) and hagun (bottom)—depending on skills, age and character. This merit-based classification is a knowledge/technology transfer system as well as a “buddy system” for collaboration and mutual safety. Within this order, haenyeo developed cultural practices, value systems and social organizations that are horizontal and reciprocal.

Typical and traditional dishes based on the fresh seafood collected by the Haenyeo are also part of the culture together with songs, celebrations and shamanistic rituals to pray for good harvest and protection while diving.

Landscape and Seascape features

Although the underwater seascape of a village fishing ground, where sea-diving takes place, is quite remarkable, the view from above a coastal fishing village that house haenyeo is unlike anything else. In this view, Mt. Hallasan, at the top, leads to a pasture that runs towards a seaside fishing village where some haenyeo plunge into the water to catch seafood along the gentle coastline while others farm the fields. This cultural landscape sustained the livelihood of the island’s people.

Jeju’s sea-diving tradition is facing enormous challenges, including a dwindling, aging haenyeo population as a result of socioeconomic changes and the depletion of marine resources caused by global warming. In response, haenyeo communities and the Jeju provincial government are implementing an action plan that they developed together to safeguard and foster the fisheries heritage established by the rare communities of professional women who dive into the sea to harvest seafood without underwater breathing apparatus.